united states project

Ignored factchecks and the media’s crisis of confidence

Whatever campaigns may do, aggressive truth-telling is the right approach for reporters
August 30, 2012

Can the media stop politicians from misleading the public?

That’s the question on the minds of many journalists and commentators after Paul Ryan’s speech last night at the Republican National Convention, which continued the Romney campaign’s pattern of disingenuous and misleading attacks on President Obama. While Obama and his allies have made many misleading claims of their own, the frequency and repetition of the Romney campaign’s claims has been particularly striking.

The debate over the GOP ticket’s lack of responsiveness to factchecking first attracted widespread attention earlier this week after a pollster for Romney waved away criticism of a television ad falsely accusing President Obama of undermining work requirements for welfare. As Ben Smith reported in BuzzFeed:

The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” awarded Romney’s ad “four Pinocchios,” a measure Romney pollster Neil Newhouse dismissed.

“Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” he said. The fact-checkers — whose institutional rise has been a feature of the cycle — have “jumped the shark,” he added after the panel.

The Romney crew has heavily featured the welfare ad, which strategist Ashley O’Connor called the campaign’s “most effective,” despite criticism from all three major fact-checkers. (Interestingly, Romney has previously cited these institutions’ work when it serves his purposes.) As of August 23, the welfare ad had run nearly 6,000 times. The chutzpah Ryan showed last night suggests that Romney’s campaign remains unbowed by the criticism it has faced.

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This brazen disregard of pushback from journalists has brought on the latest episode in a recurring crisis of confidence among media types. Politicians have persisted in misleading claims before, but the ubiquity of online debunking in this cycle has brought the disjunction into sharper relief, as this chronology by NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen highlights:

If we start back in the 1990s and read forward to the current campaign, we see distinct phases of innovation as political journalists react to misleading ads: first, the ad watch phase in the 90s; there was some mention of misleading elements, but the final tally was about effectiveness, or what I call “savvy.” The limitations of the ad watch led to direct fact-checking by the press, where actual grades are handed out. The emphasis is on judging truth and falsehood, not assessing effectiveness. So now we’re in a new phase: fact checking alone is not enough. The campaigns seem able to override it…

The Washington Post‘s Dan Balz was similarly pessimistic two weeks ago:

News organizations instituted fact-checking and ad watches in reaction to earlier campaigns, when candidates were getting away with half-truths and worse, with little accountability. These have become robust and increasingly comprehensive. But they are not providing much of a check on the campaigns’ behavior.

This attention to the effectiveness of journalistic strategies is appropriate. In my view, though, we should rejoice that the inaccuracy of Romney’s ad is a continued topic of debate, not fall into despair or paralysis over the media’s failure to dictate the content of a presidential campaign. The underlying problem with these analyses is the misguided conclusion that factchecking is a failure if it does not eliminate deception. From a scientific perspective, however, factchecking is effective if it reduces the prevalence of misleading claims relative to an otherwise identical world that lacks factchecking, which seems likely to be the case (though we lack direct evidence on this point).

With that said, journalists could be more effective in responding to a pattern of false claims. First, they should remember to continue to remind readers—some of whom are just starting to tune into the campaign—that claims like those in the welfare ad are bogus. Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg did exactly that in a New York Times report last weekend that flatly described the ad as “falsely charging that Mr. Obama has ‘quietly announced’ plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries.” Likewise, in a blog item that was later published in print, the Times‘s Michael Cooper reminded readers that the Republican convention featured a “selectively edited” clip of President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” statement, which was made all the way back in July.

Second, as The Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta has argued, reporters should cover a pattern of false claims as an ongoing story rather than ignoring it as old news. For instance, a widely lauded Los Angeles Times story highlighted by Rosen focused on former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s repetition of the false welfare claim in his speech at the convention Tuesday. Under the headline “Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama,” the LAT’s David Lauter notes in his third paragraph that Santorum’s “reprise of an inaccurate Romney campaign attack on Obama over welfare” gave his speech “its hardest edge.” This is the sort of story that, over time, can threaten a politician’s reputation for truth-telling.

But while journalists have recently produced some strong work about truth and lies in the campaign, the morning-after coverage of Ryan’s speech in the mainstream media is largely an example of what not to do. Leading outlets largely buried or ignored the vice presidential nominee’s hypocritical and misleading criticism of Medicare spending cuts (which his own budget assumes) and his attack on Obama for not embracing the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission (which Ryan himself opposed). Instead, the reporting tended to focus, as The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz did, on theater critic-style analysis of the effectiveness of the speech. (Kurtz slipped a brief discussion of Ryan’s “cynically selective attack” on Obama into the eighth paragraph of his analysis.)

Of course, there is no magic bullet here. Given current levels of polarization and media distrust, many voters will remain unpersuaded by factchecks, which in turn reduces the incentive for politicians to care what the media says. But journalists rightly espouse a creed that their highest duty is to the truth, not the marketplace or the people they cover. When someone who could be the next president or vice president of the United States makes a false claim, it is always a newsworthy act. Reporters should honor that duty in their coverage.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.